How to Write a Killer Outline for Your Book - And Why You Need to Do It

I know, I know. Outlining. Ugh. 

I used to feel the same way. But in the decade since I started writing professionally, I've fallen in love with outlines. (It isn't even a passive-aggressive relationship anymore!)

Outlines are the most powerful way to streamline your book's contents in accordance with your overall topic, message, and intended reader outcome. They offer a way to see the forest instead of just the trees, a way to study the landscape before you go exploring. 

I used to think that I could keep everything about a book straight in my head—that I could just sit down, start writing, and create something that would serve my clients and readers. After all, my on-the-fly approach was working just fine for articles and blogs, (except when I started on one topic and ended up writing about something totally different—but hey, ART!), and I was getting great feedback on my shorter pieces.

But, as I soon discovered, books are different.

First, they're just bigger. There's a lot going on, and a lot of ground to cover. That alone requires a shift in thinking. 

Second, books are not just a series of self-contained chapter-articles, but rather a long arc of information that culminates in a transformation of some kind for readers. This requires many moving parts that intersect in a rational and linear way. In order for a book to do its job for its audience, each section needs to build on the one before. (And yes, for those of you who are wondering, this is true for fiction as well. The best fiction writing uses cumulative plotting, which creates a buildup of tension and culminates in a climax which allows readers to be transformed along with the characters.) 

And finally, books offer more substance and depth than articles and essays. The format allows for the exploration of multiple concepts, arguments, examples, stories, and questions that relate to the main topic and intended reader outcome—all of which need to be balanced and offset by one another in order to make sense and propel the reader forward. 

This complexity is why good planning is so important. 

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There's a statistic that asserts that 97% of people who start writing a book never finish it. I wasn't able to find any details as to WHY those 97-percenters didn't complete their work, but I can make an educated guess as to what stymied the majority: a lack of planning and commitment.

The first book I tried to write without an outline turned out to be a steaming hot mess. The narrative was confused and tangled, and I lost the thread of the concept somewhere around Chapter 3 due to major digressions and tangents that felt really important at the time, but had nothing to do with my original vision for the book.

Obviously, I never finished even a first draft. I'm pretty sure those three horrible chapters are still rotting away in my backup folders somewhere. If I want a good laugh, I'll probably read them again someday. 

The lesson here is, writing without a plan is, at best, like shooting arrows in the dark. At worst, it's like wandering without a map or GPS in an unfamiliar, trackless landscape. You might recognize some landmarks in the distance, but once you're deep in the woods, it's hard to know how to reach them, let alone carve a straight path. 

Your outline is your book's navigation system. It allows you to plot your steps so that they're more efficient, and get you (and your readers) to your destination faster. After every writing session, you can check in with it to make sure you're still heading in the right direction. When you get lost or frustrated, it can literally be a lifeline. 

And so, I present to you my stripped-down, simple, easy-to-follow outlining plan. 

Enjoy!

Outlining Plan for World-Changing Books

Decide what you're teaching, and how you plan to teach it. 

In my course, Cover to Cover: How to Write Your World-Changing Book in 8 Easy Steps, I call this plan your "Information Delivery System." When you create a step-by-step curriculum for your readers, you can more easily help them create the results your book is promising. So rather than approaching your own process in a cavalier way, take the time to understand what, how, why, and for whom you're sharing your knowledge, and in what order you need to present your information so that readers can follow a path to real results (and you can prove your expertise). 

 

Organize your stories, statistics, studies, and other information according to your Information Delivery System. 

Chances are, you already have some idea about the stories, discussion points, and subtopics you want to explore in you book. Sort these according to your "reader curriculum" so you know where they will appear in your book, and what you need to introduce beforehand for these pieces of information to be most effective. 

 

Create chapter templates

If you've read a lot of inspirational, how-to, self-help, or other books aimed at helping readers create change, you may have noticed that most of the chapters in each book follow a similar format. I call these formats "chapter templates." So, not only do you need a cohesive plan for your whole book, you need a plan for each chapter that tells you where certain types of information appear and how they are explored. (For example, do your action steps go at the end of the chapter, or are they placed throughout? Does each chapter open with a story, or a discussion of new concepts?) This type of structure helps readers find information more easily, anticipate what's coming, and assimilate concepts more easily. 

 

Put it all together

Create a bullet-point list, mind map, post-it vision board, or any other type of outline that speaks to you, using all of the components above. Refer to it every time you sit down to write to stay focused and on target through your entire book project! 



Bryna René Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.